By Katy Albis and Amelia Vorpahl
Serving as the second director since the inception of the CSG Justice Center 20 years ago, Megan Quattlebaum brings experience and passion to her role in advancing sound criminal justice policy and practice across the country. Hear from Megan about her experience as director of the CSG Justice Center, what she recounts as some of her most significant accomplishments and what excites her about the future of the Justice Center.
What was it like starting in your position at the CSG Justice Center, and how have you seen the organization evolve over time — both internally and in its external work?
One thing that was exciting to me was being part of a membership organization with active participation from all 50 states. For many types of policy, but especially criminal justice, the states are central to what can and will happen. I also appreciated that CSG is a three-branch organization because each branch has a vital role to play in the conversation about criminal justice policy and practice. Even if you’re talking about legislation, you need the folks who are going to implement that legislation brought in and excited, so you know it can make it over the inevitable bumps in the road that come when you’re putting an idea into practice. I was also really excited about the CSG Justice Center being a bipartisan organization. Working in a consensus-based way is key to stability and sustainability.
Particularly over the past few years, we’ve taken steps to make sure we’re centering racial equity in all we do. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system exist in every jurisdiction whose data we’ve ever analyzed and at multiple decision points. It’s really exciting to see our members not accepting that but wanting to change it. We’re working hard to be ready to support them with data analysis and policy ideas responsive to this challenge. We’ve also looked inward to make sure that we’re working in a way that’s inclusive and inviting to colleagues of color and that we have a workplace that’s diverse, equitable and inclusive. We can’t help other folks and not work on those issues within our own organization.
In the end, we always try to be responsive to what states need in the current moment. Our commitment to consensus and finding out how we can serve and support our members in the states — those are things that have not changed and will not change.
You came on as director succeeding someone who founded the organization as it exists today and had been in the position for more than 15 years. How did you make that role your own?
Founding directors are tough acts to follow, and Mike Thompson even more so than most. I think everyone who knows Mike thinks he’s brilliant. With that in mind, I figured I had two choices: self-consciously compare myself to Mike and worry about whether I was measuring up or try to release the idea that measuring up to Mike was the job. I’m proud of myself for choosing the second path — at least 95% of the time — I’m human! I try to remember that his job was to build the organization we have today, while my job is to enrich and sustain it.
Every day, I try to picture two specific people in my mind: first, a person I know who has been involved with the criminal or juvenile justice systems — including those who have been victimized by a crime or committed one or worked in the system — and second, a person who works for us.
For the former, I try to make sure that we are giving everything we have to supporting the systems they’re in to be the best they can be. Lives depend on it. For the latter, I try to make sure we all remember that the most impactful career in service is not the one that burns hot for a few years and then burns out. We need to support people to do this work for a lifetime. And that means supporting them to support themselves — to take breaks, to spend time with family and friends, to enjoy this life.
What are some of the things you are most proud of from your time at the CSG Justice Center?
One thing I’m proud of is how we’ve modernized our approach to communications through things like our newsletters and virtual Justice Briefing Live events. We’ve made ourselves accessible to new audiences.
I’ve also been excited to add new skills that allow us to take our data analysis and research to the next level. For example, I see in our field an increasing recognition of the ways in which probation and parole outcomes drive prison admissions and populations. I think our research division and their work on revocations played a key part in that.
In terms of initiatives, I’m very excited about our new Reentry 2030 campaign. We’ve increasingly seen how important it is that states focus on building reentry systems and supports that are equitable. Having folks who have experienced reentry firsthand in this conversation from the beginning has been very important to help us remember that each person has unique needs and challenges.
Through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and other programs, we can provide jurisdictions with data analysis in a really deep way. Justice Counts and other initiatives we’ve started recently, like Lantern, recognize that states need that up-to-date data about their systems not just over the course of a project with us, but every day.
How does the CSG Justice Center fit into the criminal justice policy landscape? What is its unique role?
One thing that is not as known about us is how much we partner with other organizations. We bring partner organizations into our projects to make sure they’re as rich and effective as they should be.
Another thing that makes us unique is tied into our 20th anniversary. If you look at our first publication — the “Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project” report — at the time it was issued, it was cutting-edge. While the conversation about the connections between the criminal justice system and folks with mental health needs is happening on a broader scale now, we were very early to that conversation.
From its earliest days, the CSG Justice Center was keyed into the message that you cannot and should not rely on the criminal justice system to solve all social problems. You need cross-systems partners at the table. We’ve invested in having a staff with interdisciplinary knowledge and skills from the beginning.
Tell us about your vision for the next chapter of the CSG Justice Center. What do you hope the next 20 years will bring?
Twenty years ago, people weren’t using the word ‘reentry.’ We have had a role in making ‘reentry’ a household word. I see our next 20 years as another two decades of making new things possible.
In 20 years, if we’ve done our jobs right, states will have accurate and up-to-date data to help drive their criminal justice decision-making in a way they don’t today. People experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis will have multiple, easy-to-find pathways into treatment and supports that will help them stay safe and out of the justice system. And we’ll have found better ways to support the 95% of kids whose involvement with the juvenile justice system starts with a nonviolent offense.
I’m hopeful the culture of community supervision agencies will continue to evolve to focus on how best to support success, and that states will set specific goals around ensuring that when people leave prison, they are safely housed, connected to work and education and getting whatever treatment they need. I’m also optimistic that state programs that support people who have been victims of crime will be better positioned to reach the people who need those supports the most.
Any closing thoughts?
On a personal note, having the privilege of working with a group that is diverse in so many ways — race, gender, politics, geography, professional training — I now believe more than ever that leaders have to surround themselves with people who are different from them. If you’re not talking honestly with people who are different from you about the challenges your organization faces and potential solutions, you are making bad decisions.
Also, after more than four years in this role, I find that my respect and admiration for the CSG Justice Center’s staff, advisory board and partners somehow continue to grow. Even when I think I couldn’t possibly be more impressed, our team makes something seemingly impossible possible, and I’m in awe all over again. I am very lucky to be where I am.
Editor’s note: responses have been edited for length and clarity.